Ask me anything about the intersections of literature, liberty, and economics. But we can also talk poetry, pop culture, genre fiction, and generalized geekery of all kinds. There will be no math questions on this quiz.
Hi Sarah, I really enjoyed your FEEcon presentation on The Art of Liberty. I was wondering, are you an artist yourself? Do you have an online portfolio?
Thanks so much for coming to FEEcon and for coming to hear me speak (waaaay on the other side of hotel, even). It's been a little while, but I was an active poet for a long time and hope to get back to it soon--now that some of my life drama has begun to settle down a bit. You can find some of my poems at Standpoint Magazine's website http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/writers/?showid=Sarah%20Skwire, and FEE published a few as well. A general search around the web will turn up some more. I don't do visual arts, though I'm an avid knitter.
Would you rather fight 100 duck sized horses or one horse sized duck?
So the great thing about this question is that an 18th century expression for being driven nuts by petty annoyances was "being nibbled to death by ducks." However, to answer the question, I'd have to go for the horse sized duck. This is because I recently did some melee sparring at my taekwondo club with about 100 hyped up grade schoolers. I'd rather spar one blackbelt who is 3 times my size any day.
I always hear people criticize Ayn Rand for being dry and "a bad (fiction) writer". Do you agree?
Thanks for your question! I've written a little bit about Rand here. I also recently did a panel on We the Living for my friends at Cato. I hope what comes across in both of those link is that I think that the accusation you mention comes from the fact that many of Rand's novels seem (to me, at least, ymmv of course) to have been written primarily in order to teach her readers her philosophy. That's a reasonable goal for a novel, but it's a goal that can often get in the way of telling a story most effectively. (Steinbeck has that problem, and so do many other "message" novelists. Rand isn't an out lier.) So I think the criticism arises from the fact that Rand's goal as a writer and her audience's goals as readers are not always in alignment. That said, I find it pretty hard to believe that anyone could find We the Living to be dry.
You're playing Dungeons and Dragons. You come across three characters. A cleric, a sorcerer and a barbarian. Fuck, marry, kill.
I'm a libertarian. I'd marry all three of them, because (*&^&% the state and its normative definitons, anyway.
Well you married ONE of them when you had the chance....
Hey, applications are still open for the posts of Barbarian and Sorcerer. We could use some help getting the kids everywhere they need to go!
How often does good literature corroborate economic logic? What does the presence of economically suspect reasoning within great fiction tell us about fiction? Interesting stories often reveal great contempt for the bourgeois virtues. Does economically suspect reasoning in fiction tell us something meaningful about political economy? I am particularly thinking about the richness of subjective states of consciousness in works like Babbit, The Idiot, Siddhartha, etc.
I don't have a good answer to how often literature is right about economics. Sometimes it's very right and sometimes it's very wrong. Charles Dickens is spot on about issues of personal finance. He's less good about the Industrial Revolution. Jane Asuten is very economically savvy, as is Lionel Shriver. It just varies from author to author. Economically suspect reasoning withint great fiction might be telling us any number of things. It might be telling us that the author doesn't know much about economics. It might be telling us that the author is more interested in teaching us about an ideology than in truth-telling. It might just tell us that fiction is often a reflection of how people thought things worked, not how things actually worked. The one thing I DO know, is that it's always worth paying attention when economic matters show up in fiction, and that its a bad idea to reject a book out of hand because you don't like its take on economics. And I'm not sure that I understand your last questions about subjective states of consciousness and political economy, but if you'll take another whack at phrasing it, I'll try to answer later.
I was wondering what advice you have for students and young professionals who are looking for a career in being published for their writing about liberty?
Thanks for the question. There are tons of good outlets for young writers who want to start getting published and are interested in liberty issues. Places like FEE.org and groups like SFL have lots of opportunities, and you should jump on in. BUT, as with any kind of professional writing, you want to be sure--before you jump on in--that you're a solid writer, that you know what you're talking about, and that your concerns about liberty and your interest in liberty extends beyond your immediate personal concerns. I see a lot of young writers come out punching hard, without necessarily having done the background research to back up their points. Explaining economics to Don Boudreaux or telling Steve Horwitz he's not a real libertarian...That's a good way to get a bad reputation.
But the best advice about this kind of career is the best advice for any kind of writing career. 1) READ A LOT. Then read more. Not only will you learn stuff, but you will become a better writer as a result. 2) Be careful about falling into the temptation of writing a ton of stuff about your personal life. It's easy material to get and there's are plenty of outlets that want that material. It may not be the way to become a serious professional. 3) Money should flow towards the writer. Don't pay people to publish your stuff. You may well write for free early on, I certainly did and sometimes I still do. There's a complicated calculus to figuring out when that's worth it or not. But it's never worth it to pay to be in print.
Thank you! I really appreciate you taking the time to respond to my question.
Is Art possible without Liberty?
Art is always possible, that's one of the great things about it...its persistence under the worst of conditions. But we get more art and better art and more kinds of art and more access to art when we have freedom to create and to exchange ideas and to try new materials and to explore new topics.
Hi Sarah, I'm trying to read more fiction these days. What book(s) should I add to my list?
So, I think book recommendations are really really personal. To do this properly, we'd have to have a drink or three while I grilled you about what you've liked and not liked in the past. In the absence of that opportunity, I'll tell you that the book I'm telling ALL the libertarians to read lately is The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver, which is a future history of the US after we default on our national debt and the government recalls all the gold. It's amazing.
Also, since you say you're "trying" to read more ficiton, my guess is that you don't necessarily like it much. So you might like fiction that feels more like a non-fiction genre--like The Martian by Andy Weir, which is very sciencey, and like Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which is great history work. I also hear Nancy MacLean has a great new work of fiction out now that everyone's talking about. ;)
Thanks for navigating my vagueness to deliver a few wonderful suggestions!
Dear Ms. Skwire:
How may I investigate setting up an informational interview with the publishing arm of Liberty Fund, Inc.? Thanks.
I want to start by saying thank you for this opportunity and for taking the time to answer our questions! I have several, so feel free to answer whichever you wish.1. What non-fiction book has been the most influential to you concerning the way you think about the ideas of liberty?2. What advise would you give to young liberty activists in attempting to communicate the ideas of economics to those unfamiliar with the subject? I ask because some of my friends seem confused whenever I start talking about how awesome Hayek and spontaneous order is. 3. If there was one superhero (excluding Superman) who you think could best fight to defend liberty, who would it be and why?4. What is your favourite episode of Firefly, and what can liberty lovers learn from it? 5. Finally, what is the greatest source of inspiration in your day to day life that continues to spark your love of liberty and your passion for the work that you do?Thank you again for taking the time to participate in this AMA, and for everything you contribute to the liberty movement! I look forward to reading your responses. Sincerely,
I love this questions! I'll give quick answers to them all. Hope that's okay?
1. The "Why I am Not a Conservative" appendix to Hayek's Constitution of Liberty.
2. Start with opportunity costs. Everything else follows. (Spontaneous order is super awesome, but hard to explain and hard to persuade people of because we see the success of planning so often in our day to day lives. I plan meals every week for my family, for example.)
3. Why are we excluding Superman? I'm big fan of Cap (I'm ignoring the whole Hydra nonsense in the comics right now). But really the best heroes for this are probably people like Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage--local, reluctant, stubborn, and not at all interested in power, fame, or fortune.
4. All of them? Can I say all of them? I love "Out of Gas" for its lessons about scarcity and about families of choice.
5. My biggest source of inspiration? It will be cheesy to say that it's my kids, but that's at least partially true. I'd like to dig my heels in and keep their world as free as I can for them before I have to hand it over. But really, it's anyone who's read my stuff and taken the time to let me know it, or who's stopped me in the hall at a conference and told me they like what I'm doing. And it's watching student groups spring up all across Africa and in the former Soviet bloc and in so many places where--when I was a kid--we just never thought that kind of activity could happen.
Also chocolate, tea, and red wine.
Just a quick plug for the Students for Liberty Virtual Reading/Viewing Group on Firefly that Sarah and I will be doing for SFL. Watch for it!
Sheesh, Horwitz, way to steal Cory Massimino's big reveal!
oh please, it's not like we haven't made clear on Facebook what's gonna happen!
Thank you for your answers Sarah! I may place "Chocolate, Tea and Red Wine" as a note on my desk. The reason for excluding Superman is it seemed like too obvious of an answer, considering how awesome he is. Also that sounds like an amazing VRG! The moment it is officially launched, I will be sending it to everyone I can think of.
Hi there, thanks for taking the time to do this ama.
My question is, what do you think the largest existential threat facing the liberty movement is today? And as a follow up, what should we do about it?
I think we spend a lot of time bending over backwards trying to make alliances with the right or the left,and a lot of time fighting among ourselves about which side to ally with and how much to compromise in order to make the alliance. I think we should spend more time being ourselves.
1) What would life be like for the average citizen under the reign of a philosopher-king. I was watching a video of an interview of Elizabeth Hurley. Russell Crowe was sitting next to her on the TV studio's couch (he was very overweight, too). As you might remember, Mr. Crowe was the star of the movie Gladiator, and one of the supporting characters in the movie was Marcus Aurelius, who was the emperor or Rome at the time. He was a philosopher-king (wasn't he also the last of the "5 good emperors"?). I was thinking about how the people of Rome must have been enthralled at having such an emperor, but the movie did not make this clear.
2) Could Thomas Jefferson be considered a philosopher-king. Note that, for the sake of precision, he would be more like a philosopher-president. In any case, I wonder whether this experience in history is relevant and instructive vis a vis ancient Rome.
So, I know a lot of philosophers, and while I'm very fond of them, I think they'd make awful kings. I don't know any kings, but I've read a lot of things written by kings, and they make rotten philosophers. So I think a philosopher-king is probably the worst of both worlds. Additionally, and just anecdotally, most of hte people whom I have heard suggest that we should have philosopher kings tend to mean that they want to be in charge personally. I'm not a fan.
My (interrelated) question(s) is (are) directed to you AND to ALL the other experts, especially economists.
1. Is living life more important than a series of “economic” choices and the freedom to make them?
2. Is personal happiness dependent on the freedom to accumulate things?
3. Is there a fair exchange between Butcher and Baker and Carpenter if one or the other knows more, or is more capable.
4. Is there a responsibility for the more capable humans to attend to the those less capable?
5. Is there a right for a group of like-minded people rejecting outsider interloper’s evangelism?
6. Is it fair for the Butcher to be expert in meat but require Baker to be expert in meat and furniture and ever other “seller” business?
7. Is fairness the goal of economics or is economics concerned only with completing an exchange?
8. Is the political/economic schemes the only way for the citizenry’s to achieve the point of their life?
9. Is life successfully describable in political/economic terms
10. Can you re-phrase the above questions into a more coherent structure giving you a chance to actually address what I so clumsily am trying to ask?
I think your questions are all poking at a very deep question about what is most important in life. [Dear Readers: Please feel free to insert the requisite Conan the Barbarian quotation here]. You seem to be putting happiness and "economics" into two very separate categories. I'm not sure it works that way...and that's not because I think money automatically buys happiness (though, did you see the new research that suggests that the ability to pay people to do household tasks you hate measurably increases happiness? So, sometimes it's possible to buy happiness.)
I think that a lot of people think of economics as only the study of money and what we do with it. Because I am not an economist, that's actually the part of economics that interests me the least. I think of economics as the study of the choices that people make in all areas of life. All choices are "economic" because all things are scarce. And whenever you have something that's scarce, you are working in the realm of economics. Deciding if I should go to the gym or not is not a (primarily) a monetary question--but because it deals with things that are scarce--like my time and my energy--its an economic question. What do I get if I go to the gym? What do I give up? I suspect a lot of the questions you've asked me will start to shift if you stop thinking about economics as being just about money.
Hello again. I thought of a literature question. I am a brilliant computer programmer, and I want to make an app that can generate compelling stories algorithmically. I first need to know what makes a story compelling. Why am I riveted to the goings-on of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman, Mike Ehrmantraut, and even some cartel members (yikes!), but I don't give a crap about 2 Broke Girls? Can you explain, in a nutshell, what makes a story interesting/relevant/compelling/fascinating to someone? Thanks!
I can do that as soon as you can explain why I love tea and hate coffee. Personal taste is a tricky thing. The best storytellers manage to do something new while simultaneously appealing to a broad enough swathe of personal tastes to entice a lot of readers. If I could do that reliably, I'd stay home and write best-sellers.
The most important thing though, is to make readers want to know what happens next. If they don't care, you're toast.
Are there books you could suggest for a left-leaning friend who likes literature?
Again, as I said to Jason, I feel like book recommendations are super personal and I'd want more information. Are you trying to convert someone to the love of liberty? Are you asking for yourself as a left-leaning liberty lover? (forgive the excessive alliteration.) Do you want fiction or non-fiction? Because I could recommend books for HOURS if I get started.
(Try Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice. It's brilliant.)
Thank you, Sarah, for your answer, I am asking for myself. I am looking for fiction. I know Ayn Rand's books are a good start but I am looking for a reading list for the next couple of months. Thanks again!
Definitely A Town Like Alice. Everything I recommended earlier to Jason. And anyone who likes Rand will like Edna Ferber's Emma McChesney stories (Collected in three books: Roast Beef Medium, Personality Plus, and Emma McChesney and Co.. And if you like great big long novels, (I do!) try Ladies' Paradise by Zola.
Sarah, what's your advice for people wishing to create "art with a message?"
Make art that moves you and that moves other people. The message will end up in there anyway.
When it comes to liberty, what role does religion play? Not just having the freedom to believe what you want, but in liberty and freedom as a practice? Does having a religious doctrine or faith that you adhere to negate liberty in any way? Why or Why not?
So allying yourself with any group, whether its a church, a group marriage with a cleric, a barbarian, and a sorcerer, or a bridge club, will impinge on your liberty in one way or another. To join the bridge club you have to agree to give up Saturday afternoons so you can play. To enter the group marriage with the merry band of D&D companions you have to agree to a set of rules and committments that will govern that marriage. And to belong to a church or temple or mosque, you have to accept the rules that govern that community--pay our dues, refrain from eating pork, how up on Christmas Eve, send your kids to religious school, wear a particular kind of clothing...whatever. But choosing to join a group and choosing to give up some perfect individual freedom in exchange for somethig you see as a greater good (regular bridge games, three awesome marriage partners, eternal salvation/good arguments about Torah) doesn't seem to me to be a problem. So, if the question that underlies your questions is something like "Can a person who loves liberty believe in God and belong to a religion?" then my answer is "Of course."
All right! It's 1:30! Let's answer some questions! Thanks for joining me!
Thanks for doing this AMA! I'm looking forward to reading your responses.
Do you think the modern liberty movement struggles in story-telling through literature, or other forms of ficitonal media, and if so, what do you think could be done to improve messaging in that regard?
I actually see a lot of really good story-telling lately. I think things have improved a LOT in the past 15 years or so. We've got people already in the movement who are doing really good work in documentary films (like my buddy Sean Malone) and the folks at MPI are working with documentary and fictional film making. And then there's stuff made by people who aren't connected to the movement, but who are interested in some of the same questions.
Id love to see more television like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Firefly, and Battlestar Galactica--series that take issues of liberty seriously just as a part of the stories that they're telling. I think, though, that it's a mistake to think of this kind of work primarily as "messaging" and secondarily as art or entertainment. I think that flips the way it ought to be. You can be as on message as you want, and if the story is no good and the writing is leaden and the characters aren't interesting, the only people who will watch your show or see your film are the people who already agree with you.The Incredibles is a great movie first, and a great movie with a liberty message second. That's why it did so well.
Hey Sarah! Thanks for doing this for all us big fans out here! I was wondering what you think the particular contribution is that literature makes to social life, either to how we understand that life through literature, or perhaps what role literature itself plays in our social dynamics? In particular, how it affects our understandings of marriage and the family or the role of women? Thanks again!
Okay, so you already know that my social life basically is books and most of my best friends are fictional characters, so this probably isn't the greatest question for me. However, I do think that literature (and we can expand that out to include all kinds of stories) creates communities of shared interest and concern. When the last installment of Dickens's novel The Old Curiosity Shop arrived in New York from London (this is back when novels came in monthly installments) people greeted the ship at the pier, hollering "DID LITTLE NELL DIE???" That's not very far from today's fan communities. And today's fan communities encourage an even more interactive involvement with stories--dressing up as characters, writing stories set in their worlds or about other episodes in their lives, attending conferences with other fans, playing the games the characters play, and so on. I love all that, and I love the way it helps people find others who share their passions. But even if you aren't doing that level of fan stuff, there's the all important water cooler conversations at the office or at Starbucks--catching up with friends on the latest episodes of whatever, or bumping into someone who's reading one of your favorite books. It connects us.
And, as you suggest, stories give us a way to think about how human life works. Tyler Cowen talks about "the novel as a model" and that's certainly part of it--stories are a way to play thought experiments with how human lives work and what kinds of choices humans make. (I once told an economist friend of mine that I think novelists and economists are both obsessed with people's choices--but that economists mostly care about the choice that gets made, and novelists mostly care about WHY the choice gets made.) There have been studies that back up Adam Smith's assertaion that fiction and drama help us become better at sympathizing with others. I think that requires a very concentrated, deep kind of interaction with a story, but I do think it's possible.
And certainly literature has been an important part in how we understand institutions like marriage and the family and the role of women. There's far too much to go into here, but a few examples...Shakespeare's Measure for Measure begins when there's debate about whether a couple is married or not--think about how nebulous the institution of marriage must have been in order for that to have even been an askable question! Dorothy Canfield Fisher's novel The Home-maker is a 1924 novel about a husband and wife who switch responsibilities and find their household is much happier and more effective...and then have to figure out how to be able to keep it that way when the world expect them to fulfill traditional roles. Edith Wharton's novels explore questions about marriage and divorce and the learned helplessness of aristocratic women...And I think that seeing those problems explored on the page makes it more and more possible to explore them out in the real world. Similarly now, with stories like Sense8 and others, we have stories that are exploring questions about sexuality and gender and family and so on that we are only just beginning to dare to work out in the real world.
Can you explain to everyone your theory for how to properly organize kitchen drawers?
If you have enough drawers (which is a very big if...maybe it's even an iff?) you have a drawer for things that open other things. Then you have a drawer for things that grate or chop things into small pieces. Then you have a drawer for things that measure other things.
All drawer openings are accompanied by invocations to the Goddess Anoia, of course.
Why is this so hard?
It works better with capitalization: Drawer for Things that Open Other Things, for example.
You're just trying to get revenge for the fact that I spent my morning editing your prose.
and now doing an AMA feels like a vacation, by comparison. :) See how nice I am?
Thanks for all the questions, folks! Have a great weekend!
Ah, Sarah. Sorry to be late in asking but I was traveling when you were answering. I have loved everything I read of yours on FEE.
Re: your comments on didactic fiction at the Rand link. Irving's, A Prayer for Owen Meany, seems to fit that category. Do you think it will fade as the Vietnam War recedes in memory? I certainly hope not. Its humor is for the ages. I never laughted so hard at anything written as when I read about baby Jesus with an errection.